COVID-19 and higher education in mid-October: infections, deaths, plans, seasons, toggle terms, and a data disaster
To forecast the future, it’s crucial to understand the present.
I’ve followed that principle for years. It informs my work on many levels. That’s why today I’d like to give you all a sense of where higher education stands in the middle of October, 2020, as it grapples with COVID-19. We need to do this in order to think more effectively about where we’re headed next.
I’ve been meaning to update you all for several weeks. But this season I’m brain-deep in climate change work, plus engaged with teaching two seminars and immersed in several other projects. Still, I want to catch us all up on where things stand with the pandemic, especially as it’s proving decisive for the American election, and as we grope towards what the thing could do over the next few years.
Let’s start with the virus, move on to what colleges and universities are doing, then offer some thoughts about what this all tells us about possible 2021s.
Fair warning: this is a heavy post, long, carrying lots of data, and addressing a horrific subject. I’ve included visualizations and photos which might break up the stress.
I: THE PANDEMIC GROWS
On October 16th, 2020, COVID-19 continues to spread across the world, sickening, injuring, and killing.
Data vary depending on one’s source, but the overall picture is fairly clear. Global infection numbers range from 38,789,204 to 39,126,112 and 39,474,896 people. Deaths are now clearly over one million: 1,095,097 to 1,106,870 to 1,100,877.
In the United States between 7,958,254 and 8,267,053 people are infected, amounting to around 2.4% of the population. American deaths are in a range of nearly a quarter million, 216,917 to 218,137 and 223,359. Those numbers are likely an undercount, as tens of thousands of “excess deaths” (deaths above recent history, yet not assigned to COVID) have been occurring for months; at least one paper sees actual deaths being up to 20% higher, or around 260–267,000. (sources: Centers for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization, Worldometers)
There are no good national or global numbers about people injured by infections, suffering damages that may last them for some time, whom some call long haulers.
Here’s the iconic Johns Hopkins dashboard for today:
To give you a sense of perspective, of how quickly human horror and wastage have swollen, here’s where things stood six months ago, on the same dashboard, but for April 14th:
Based on that data, the European Union, the United States, and Britain, are now experiencing massive infection rises, while the huge waves which attacked Brazil and India are now subsiding.
The unfortunately named Information is Beautiful site presents infections and deaths in absolute terms:
In the United States, every region is now experiencing rising infections:
The butcher’s bill presents differently, as the west and especially south are on downhill trajectories, thankfully. But the number of deaths in the northeast and midwest are rising:
The COVID Tracking Project says the United States is now in a third pandemic wave.
The third surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is under way. Outbreaks have been worsening in many states for more than a month, and new COVID-19 cases jumped 18 percent this week, bringing the seven-day average to more than 51,000 cases a day. Though testing rose by 8 percent nationally, that’s not enough of an increase to explain the steep rise in cases. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations, which had previously been creeping upward slowly, jumped more than 14 percent from a week earlier.
Looking ahead, projections uniformly indicate more infections and deaths, unsurprisingly. The University of Washington’s IHME project forecasts three possible global death toll outcomes by February 2021, from 1.8 to nearly 3.5 million:
In the short term, IHME sees around 230,000 dead by America’s election day:
Many in the US anticipate a vaccine to staunch the bleeding. Some look forward to herd immunity.
In the meantime, American public health and medicare care are very unevenly distributed.
II. HIGHER EDUCATION STRUGGLES WITH COVID
So how is higher education grappling with this terrible pandemic?
(For reasons of time I’m going to focus on the United States.) It’s actually difficult to answer this question. We have to take several different approaches.
We can start by checking on national data about colleges, universities, and COVID-19. Unfortunately, shamefully, disastrously for present and future, we don’t have any data we can use. The CDC offers some guidance but is not tracking the viral spread across higher education. The United States Department of Education publishes no such data. The White House Coronavirus Task Force, which manages to issue recommendations to individual states while having no official website that I can discover, also fails to share anything on this score. Neither leading journal of academia publishes a national dashboard or even total stats. No nonprofit has done this, nor any business that I can find.
The best we have right now, as best I can determine, is a single New York Times web page. Back in August the Times tried to aggregate as much collegiate information as they could. As I wrote then, the results were poor: only a fraction of the higher education ecosystem was touched, the data incompatible, and all of it spread across uneven timelines. And this took dozens of reports some undisclosed amount of time to eke out.
Since then that tracker has improved somewhat. It now claims 1,700 campuses, or nearly 40% of the whole: better, if not sufficient. The problems I identified are otherwise still there. At least the page is quite honest about its limitations, once you scroll down a bit:
With no national tracking system, and statewide data available only sporadically, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections. While The Times’s survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also a near-certain undercount… [A]t least 140 other [campuses] ignored inquiries or refused to answer questions…
Because colleges report data differently, and because cases continued to emerge even in the months when most campuses were closed, The Times is counting all reported cases since the start of the pandemic.
It’s been eight days since the last update to the page. Sigh.
Given those caveats, what does the Times tracker tell us? Their headline claim is “more than 178,000 cases and at least 70 deaths” infections… since the virus hit American shores. What about fall semester?
The Times has counted more than 171,000 additional cases at colleges since late July; of those, more than 48,000 cases came since late September.
So… it’s hard to say what this tells us, since “since late July” includes both summer and fall terms, and “since late September” leaves out the first weeks of the semester, depending on campus schedules. We can reasonably guess some tens of thousands of academics, probably? over one hundred thousand, have been infected this term. But the number should be much higher, given the Times’ admitted undercount. For example, if the tracker only catches 40% of colleges and universities, and we estimate 100,000 infections in that sample, we could project a reality closer to 240,000.
What about deaths? How many members of the academic world have perished due to COVID-19? Again, there is no national record of this. I have tracked four so far, each of which I’ve shared via Twitter:
- Chad Dorrill, a student at Appalachian State University
- Jamain Stephens Jr., a student at California University of Pennsylvania
- James Hamilton, a police officer at the University of North Carolina- Asheville
- Irving Pressley McPhail, president of St. Augustine’s University
Prior to fall term, Osanette Hernandez died in August. She was a nursing student; I can’t determine where she was studying.
How many others have died? What are their stories, their very names? Is anyone even bothering to record them?
If we can’t get good data for how COVID hits academic populations, we could instead examine the macro picture by looking to campus operational strategies for fall 2020. According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s tracker (last updated more than two weeks ago), itself based on Davidson College’s College Crisis Dashboard, American colleges and universities have adopted a wide variety of educational configurations:
Entirely online, mostly online, mostly face-to-face, some hybrid — it’s clear that no one approach has won a majority of adherents. We really shouldn’t speak of campuses opening up, heading online, etc. without qualifying such statements with “the fraction of colleges and universities doing so.”
One such operational strategy requires testing students and at times others on campus for infections. It seems that this is another approach taken only by a fraction of institutions. Again, the data is bad, but “more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes either have no clear testing plan or are testing only students who are at risk,” according to NPR.
Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.
Another such operational strategy is what I called “the toggle term,” when a college or university switches between online (all or mostly) and in-person (all or mostly) education in mid-semester. I forecast the strategy back in April. When I last blogged about it I had found seventeen Toggle Term cases this fall.
New examples include:
- Keuka College, whose infected numbers overwhelmed their care so badly that they sent all apparently healthy students home.
- The University of Chicago’s School of Business switched online as student cases spiked following a big off-campus party.
- Scott Community College Belmont Campus moved online for a week after staff cases rose.
- Three North Carolina universities that started fall term in person, then switched online, announced they would start spring semester in person.
Meanwhile, 1,000 Kutztown University students toggled themselves, as it were, leaving campus to study remotely on their own volition.
We could also approach the question by looking at individual stories. For example, SUNY Oneonta has suffered a serious COVID-19 surge. Their president has stepped down as a result. Hazmat-equipped authorities (local? state?) have removed students and student property from campus.
There are many, many stories.
But overall, we run smack into one key problem: we are experiencing a serious data void as we try to see what COVID is doing to higher education.
III. WHAT’S NEXT?
What does the preceding suggest about the next year? What does fall 2020 tell us about spring, summer, and fall 2021?
We should expect infections and deaths to continue growing. There is no sign of the virus suddenly and massively mutating into a benign form. I’m not seeing any evidence that a working vaccine exists, much less working through the long, arduous route of testing->production->distribution->enough people actually taking the thing to matter over the next few months, if not longer. Therefore COVID seems likely to continue cutting a swathe through the human race. That necessitates not only hospitalizations, suffering, long-term injuries, and deaths, but also emotional tolls taken on families and communities, stresses on already strained medical and public health care, and continued economic recession. The unevenness of public health and medical care’s availability could worsen an already bitter national mood, even helping accelerate civil instability, especially as a potentially chaotic election occurs.
All of those damages hit academia, from infections and long-haul injuries to more deaths. All of the attending effects also play across higher ed on multiple levels: enrollment, finance, educational operations, building renovations, mental health, etc. To pick one example, the pandemic’s enormous stress might drive some students to reduce the number of classes they take, or simply to withdraw altogether. To pick another, we could expect COVID-related research to surge, as it already has, while non-epidemic research declines.
Additionally, academia plays some role in spreading the pandemic, to the extent that we do our work in person and fail to rigorously follow sufficient public health measures. At least one study finds campuses conducting face-to-face activities to increase infection rates in surrounding counties by a statistically significant measure. This will take some toll on town-gown relations, not to mention academia’s broader reputation.
The global nature of the pandemic, and America’s international standing thereof, have hit international study hard. We should expect a continued drop in the number of overseas students taking classes. This has financial and campus cultural effects, of course.
How will higher ed respond? If we follow fall 2020 practices, colleges and universities will adopt a variety of plans, with no one system being used by a majority. i.e., some campuses will teach entirely online, others all face-to-face, some blending the two, and so on. We could expect around forty toggle term instances, if my fall 2020 count holds up.
Now, many campuses changed their fall schedule to end in-person classes early, typically by Thanksgiving break. On the calendrical flip side, some could also start spring term later. For example, Bowdoin College will commence classes several weeks late. There are other cases as well. One effect is a much longer winter break, lasting one to two months. Historically this is interesting, as that winter gap starts to resemble summer sessions in size. Perhaps we’re heading to a four season structure for American colleges and universities: fall classes on, winter off, spring on, summer off. Alternatively, schools can offer fully online winter programs.
Not present in the preceding, but present in how I imagine many readers react as they work through this post, is growing pandemic fatigue. The virus has been attacking the world for nearly one year. Many are tired of coping with it. This is one driver behind lax compliance with public health measures. We may also be normalizing the thing, weaving it into the quiddity of daily and national life, so that we cease to single it out for attention, but gradually include it within the battery of threats we all face. It’s possible that such acculturation and normalization will involve our no longer thinking about new habits, from masking up to expecting more open social spaces than we once did. Already I, an energetic extrovert, flinch at the sight of other people in the same building as myself. It might take extra effort to identify COVID effects in 2021, or even to draw attention to it.
One last note: we still badly need good data about what COVID-19 is doing to higher education. We can’t assess this problem on anything other than a case by case basic without it. The lack hurts our decision-making. History will struggle to understand what happened in 2020, and will not look kindly at our fumbling to record it.
(thanks to Laurie Garrett, Eric Feigl-Ding, this Inside Higher Ed roundup, this bigger IHE roundup, this Chronicle resource, my old college friend Sheldon Robertson, and others; cross-posted to my blog)